Samuel Delany wrote most of his science fiction short stories in the late 60s and early 70s—a time of ferment for the genre—publishing most of the stories in pulp magazines where they derive contextual meaning from their place of publication. Most of Delany's SF has been novels; in more recent years he has published relatively little science fiction, focusing on criticism, erotica, and the sword and sorcery Neveryona series. Despite the fact he has written only a few SF stories, they have been influential and award-winning, reflecting Delany's fascination with genres, language, and signs as well as demonstrating his interest in creating meaning through patterned repetition of images and themes.
Omegahelm is a good place to start this discussion because it revolves around language, the interpretation of a sign and the desire by authority to gain totalizing control over the sign's meaning.
The story occurs in the form of a debate between two characters: Gylda, a retiring spy, and her employer Vondra, the dictator of several worlds. It contains an old premise handled in an unusual way. The protagonist is an assassin-spy wanting to get out of the business and live a normal life (remember Michael Corleone in a slightly different context: "Every time I think I'm getting out, they pull me back in!") In hardboiled fiction, they don't let you out, especially if you know too much. Well it turns out that Vondra—the boss—will let Gylda out, although she points out as is customary that she could make trouble for her.
Vondra and Gylda have a conflict over the meaning of the cyhnk, a symbol Gylda wears around her neck. As Gylda points out, "It is only a sign, Vondra ... . A signifier, they used to say, whose meaning—whose signified—shifts from place to place, world to world, person to person. On my world, in the very small part of it where I want to live... it means home, the futures fanning out from it, the children I hope to raise, the society I want to see beside them ... the nurture stream I hope to create" (Aye, and Gomorrah 264-265).
Vondra, an allegorical symbol of power, objects to a sign that has a changing meaning because the lack of consistency limits her control. Vondra tries to pin the cyhnk down to a definite meaning saying it means family: mother, father and son, the basic form of reproduction.
Since her early supporters were advocates of the family, that concept is a key element in her power. By giving that set of desires a definite form and center, Vondra and her supporters use it to control others.
Gylda points out that Vondra's attempt to create a definite center is reductive and inaccurately describes their experiences since neither of them were raised in a traditional family: Gylda grew up in a clone camp on a world trying to rapidly increase its population, and Vondra in a birth-defect experimental control group.
Despite Vondra's support for the family, her own attempts at procreation have been monstrous. Vondra wanted her daughter to be a sculptor, so she made a child with artistic ability and knowledge of sculpting encoded in her. She set the child's life span at seven minutes; it reached puberty, maturity and death in that brief span, using its intellect and creativity to create art works within minutes of birth. The child created several works of art and then was so tortured that it committed suicide all within its compressed and accelerated lifetime—two minutes before it would have died of natural causes. Vondra does not seem to understand the cruelty of any of this; the desire for control takes precedence for her.
It is likely that in the future parents will have the opportunity to pick designer babies, weeding out diseases and alcoholism, as well as endowing the baby with genes for intelligence, good looks, and athleticism. As problematic as that type of designer baby may be, Vondra's attempt to control her baby's existence and lifespan was much worse.
Omagahelm is a prequel to the novel Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, which depicts the conflict between the believers in the cyhnk and believers in the family and portrays the lives of Vondra and Gylda's descendants.
When Vondra discovers she cannot win the debate over the cyhnk, she heats Gylda's necklace with an inductance field from one of her rings and burns her, causing her to hurl the cyhnk from around her neck. The first time they met Vondra laughed at Gylda, because she knew she had the power to heat it anytime she wanted. If she cannot impose meaning, she can punish independence of thought. Gylda is unbowed by this act of violence and retakes the cyhnk as the story ends.
Delany wrote most of his science fiction stories before he studied poststructuralism, a philosophy and literary theory concerned with language and signs. According to an interview, Delany started reading poststructuralism in 1975. Delany may have the chronology wrong because Omagahelm, the most recent of these stories, was published in 1973 and uses the terminology of "signifier" and "signified" which derives from structuralism and poststructualism. Although written before his initial encounters with literary theory, the other stories prefigure concerns with language and genre that will be important to Delany's SF criticism and writing in the 80s and later.
On the issue of family, I think Delany wants to keep that concept under erasure. Although family expresses admirable and powerful desires, if we let it settle into one meaning or interpretation it becomes totalizing and restrictive just as Vondra wants to impose totalizing and restrictive interpretations on the cyhnk so she can control Gylda and others.
The slipperiness of the signifier family and the desires associated with it occurs throughout Delany's short fiction, which offers a rich array of life options and personal arrangements. In The Star Pit the protagonist Vyme loves children and despite the self-destructiveness of his life repeatedly tries to create a family for himself.
Vyme's first attempt is through a procreation group in which a group of men and women are mutually married and raise their children communally—that way if one of the parents is not around the damage to the child is minimized.
He alienates and abandons the procreation group before it is destroyed in one of the wars that surge through this future. His next attempt to establish a family for himself is through helping several displaced kids—especially goldens and would-be goldens—find a job and a place in the world.
Goldens are the only humans who can travel into intergalactic space. Most people suffer insanity 20,000 light years from the galactic rim, then death at 25,000 light-years. Just as space and time are relative to the concentration of matter, so is reality; when a traveler leaves the galactic center the nature of reality changes. Goldens are people—only one in 34,000—suffering from mental illness whose sense of reality is so shattered that they can withstand travel away from the galactic center.
Starpit has the common Delany characters: the criminals, the outcasts, the artists, and the emotionally and physically damaged. He portrays the character Ratlit, a 13 year old criminal who dictated a successful novel to his publisher; Alegra a drug-addicted 15-year projective telepath; and the goldens who move from galaxy to galaxy to avoid feeling confined and whose behavior tends towards psychosis.
Most of the characters feel caged or imprisoned, but the price of escape seems to be emotional damage: insanity for the goldens, a drinking problem for Vyme, drug addiction for Alegra and self-destruction for Ratlit. The cage of society is so powerful that escape occurs when the characters wound themselves.
Growth is symbolized by the important image of the ecologarium, a Delany neologism that derives from ecology—"the study and the relations of organisms to one another and their surroundings" and arium: "place for," similar to herbarium or aquarium or honorarium (definitions from the OED). The ecologarium is similar to a complicated ant farm; inside it the ecology is built of various animals on an alien planet. The ecologarium is constructed so that the children of Vyme's group marriage can learn about ecology by watching the animals grow.
In a drunken rage, Vyme destroys the children's ecologarium, just as he destroyed an antfarm when his mother wouldn't let him outside as a child. Since he feels imprisoned and frustrated, he lashes out. His wife asks him "when are you going to grow up?"
By growth, his wife means maturity and responsibility, whereas Vyme sees growth as continual movement to evade imprisonment.
Like the goldens, Vyme leaves Earth to escape being limited to one world, eventually traveling to the Star Pit, which is as far from the galactic center as a non-golden can travel, but even that is not far enough. A golden cuttingly asks Vyme: "This is as far as you go, isn't it?"
In the Star Pit Vyme falls into a repetitive rut and becomes like the creatures in the ecologarium stagnating and staring out of the glass.
Most of the characters in the story feel imprisoned if someone else is freer. Vyme and some of the other characters are restricted because the goldens can travel to different galaxies; the goldens because there is an animal that can travel to other dimensions. There is an element of political allegory to this theme. Vyme is black, and his frustration and inability to adjust to his society exist because there are others freer than he is, a frustration many black males may feel in American society, especially in the late 60s when Delany wrote the story.
Near the story's end, a friend of Vyme's offers him the chance to start another group, an opportunity to start growing again and to connect with others. It's not clear how Vyme will respond to the offer, but the story provides some cautious optimism. Vyme has matured, which implies a sense of responsibility, and grown, which implies avoiding a fixed, unchanging center and not remaining trapped by an older sense of self.
Driftglass is a beautifully written story originally published in the June 1967 issue of Worlds of If with illustrations by Gaughan. The writing style and sense of symbolism and characterization is much stronger than most of the other tales in the old-style pulp.
The narrator Cal Svenson is a wounded Delany character, physically as well as psychologically. He is an amphiman, a member of the Aquatic Corp. In this near future, underwater work is performed by humans who have been surgically altered as teenagers and given gills, an additional eyelid, and webs between their fingers and toes. Svenson was severely mutilated and nearly killed by an underwater explosion while laying an underwater power line.
He is retired on early disability and living in Brazil. He has a close relationship with a nearby family whose children are his godchildren, so again we have the lonely single man developing a close relationship with children.
Driftglass—the Coca-Cola bottles and other glass that goes into the sea—serves as a powerful image, just as the ecologarium creates an image and patterned theme in The Star Pit. Delany describes the driftglass:
the tide pulls the pieces back and forth over the sandy bottom, wearing the edges, changing their shape. Sometimes chemicals in the glass react with chemicals in the ocean to change their color (Aye, and Gomorrah 103).
The color becomes milky when dry, transparent when put back in the sea. Svenson collects driftglass. The imagery of the driftglass symbolizes the danger of the sea: just as the ocean breaks the Coca-cola bottles, pulling and changing the glass, it breaks the bodies of the amphimen
Another group of amphimen tries to lay down a power cable at the place where Svenson attempted and are killed. Worlds of If provided a blurb with the original publication of the story: "Sure amphimen are human. What if we do have gills, breathe water, look like monsters—and die like flies?" (Worlds of If June 1967 141). I'm sure Delany had nothing to do with that blurb; they were written by editors and ran before every story in If, but in a sensationalistic way the blurb conveys the tale's sense of mortality and enormous sacrifices. The amphimen are caught in an underwater eruption which belched molten silicon. When their bodies are brought to shore: "Several ... were almost totally encased in dull, black glass"(If June 1967 156). They become driftglass; the ocean shapes them into a powerful image of entombment and imprisonment.
The Jack Gaughan illustrations in If provide an important part of the original context. Gaughan was a prominent illustrator for Galaxy and If, most influential because of his black and white interior illustrations. His stylized drawings fit Delany's story well. The illustrations are of amphimen and the main character. The first two pictures are of Svenson: in one he is swimming, in the other standing on the seashore. In both his one webbed hand is prominently displayed; the other hand is unwebbed so presumably the webs are torn because of his wounds. The third illustration shows amphimen bringing a dead body off a submarine. The body is an amorphous blob, covered by the silicon slag produced by the underwater eruption. The third illustration has scrawled in the bottom corner: "Jack Gaughan, To Chip For What Is With" (If June 1967 155). Chip is Delany's nickname. These illustrations provide contextual significance missing from the reprints.
Driftglass, like The Star Pit, contains a sense of ecology. Svenson advises a fisherman friend to fish near where the explosion occurred because the high mineral content will attract fish. Svenson's fisherman friend sends his children away to be amphimen because the life of a fisherman is too precarious financially. Svenson asks him if he is having second thoughts after the explosion; he replies that fishermen have drowned, but this is still a town of fishermen. The attitude is not resignation or cynicism, but a sense of ecology, being part of a bigger world and having the maturity and responsibility to carve one's place in it. The story concludes with two characters looking at the clouds in the sky, caused by the explosion, which reiterates the interrelated lives of nature and the characters.
Corona was written in the late 60s and emerges from that milieu. A telepathic and empathic girl forges an unusual friendship with an injured former prisoner. The girl and her society are fascinated with a Ganymede singer named Faust, whose affect on the culture around him is reminiscent of how British rock bands influenced Americans in the 60s with many teenagers copying his Ganymede accent as teenagers mimicked the Beatles' accent. The story focuses on the characters and is a study of 60s youth. Even the union between a young black girl and a Louisiana blue collar worker shows the cultural stresses and concerns of the 60s. SF is always as much about the present as the future, and this tale demonstrates that. I wouldn't call Corona one of Delany's more profound stories thematically, but the portrayal of empathy and common humanity across a racial divide is nicely done.
Many elements of Corona are reminiscent of mainstream fiction. One thing impressive about Delany's writing is his ability to convey the qualities of mainstream fiction without forgetting the SF concerns. His characters are well developed, have internal conflicts, pasts, and complicated psychologies. You get a sense of real-life concerns when you read his work and get to know his characters as people, but he also provides well-developed future societies and scientific speculation.
Aye, and Gomorrah was originally published in Dangerous Visions and at the time was considered taboo-breaking. SF up until the 60s was a fairly sexless genre, and Delany's story is not just about sex but sexual perversion.
The protagonist is a spacer. In this near future, it has been discovered that radiation in space destroys gonads so spacers are neutered when they are teenagers. One cannot tell whether spacers were originally male or female. The story is an early work of posthumanism, in which humans are physically altered to suit their environment. Fredrick Pohl's Man Plus is the most famous example of that subgenre, although posthumanism is now a common theme.
A group of humans called frelks develop a sexual perversion for the neutered spacers. The frelks love "dead meat," i.e. neutered spacers who cannot respond sexually. The term for this is free-fall-sexual-displacement-complex.
Delany comments on the story's genesis in the afterword in Dangerous Visions. After wandering from city to city in Europe and Asia—like the spacers who race from city to city to find thrills and diversions—Delany heard two women talking about an astronaut:
"... so antiseptic, so inhuman, almost asexual!"
"Oh no! He's perfectly gorgeous!"
Why put all this into an SF story? I sincerely feel the medium is the best in which to integrate clearly the disparate and technical with the desperate and human.
Someone asked me of this particular story, "But what can they do with one another?"
At the risk of pulling my punch, let me say that this is basically a horror story. There is nothing they can do. Except go up and down (Dangerous Visions 544).
The neutered spacers can be read as a metaphor for science fiction, which is often focused on spacers going up and down from planet to planet, but until the late 60s it largely avoided sex. Phillip Jose Farmer wrote about sex in The Lovers and Flesh, but the pulp magazines for the most part avoided the topic because the magazines could not afford to sell sex to their predominately adolescent audience without offending cultural norms. It has been said that the ideal age for SF is 12, and the pulp magazines, like Delany's spacers, often seemed trapped in a pre-sex adolescence.
The story demonstrates Delany's interest in the margins of society: the characters are sexual perverts and neutered spacers. The spacers and their relationship with the frelks may also stand for the difficulty of interhuman connection in modern industrial society and its dismantling of the traditional ties of kinship and village. The frelks are desperate enough for human connection that they follow a socially despised perversion, but the people they choose to pursue are impossible to achieve true intimacy with. Although Vyme in The Star Pit can struggle to achieve a connection with others, the frelks and the spacers are doomed to alienation.
High Weir is a story in intertextual dialogue with a number of SF traditions, set on Mars like many planetary romances. Delany was probably thinking of Zelazny's Martian story A Rose for Ecclesiastes when he wrote it. It depicts an exploration team that finds the remains of an ancient Martian civilization, which apparently did not have writing. Instead, they stored information three dimensionally, in holograms.
High Weir has a psychological focus, "inner space" to use the late 60s lingo, depicting the nervous breakdown of a brilliant linguist who becomes obsessive-compulsive, worrying about his body's enzyme reactions and suffering from delusions, culminating with the belief that he's a Martian and can remove his spacesuit. The focus on inner space brings up Delany's connection with the New Wave. Delany is often referred to as a New Wave writer, but he has repeatedly denied that connection, claiming in the late 60s there were three different groups of writers: the New Wave writers connected with Moorcock's New Worlds, Damon Knight's Orbit writers, and Dangerous Vision, a group with which Delany does feel some connection.
Delany commented on the New Wave group:
Though we all got along well socially, Moorcock told me that the only book of mine he liked enough to publish himself was Empire Star—no doubt because the political allegory of North American slavery and the Lll [aliens in the novel] was so clear. But when Nova was reviewed in New Worlds by M. John Harrison, the basic thrust of the review was: What a shame someone so talented is wasting his time with this far future space opera nonsense. And in his history of New Worlds, published in Foundation during the 70s, Moorcock dismisses the one story of mine his magazine published, Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones, as "derivative" and "space opera." (Hartwell 19)
It's fairly obvious why Delany feels it is historically inaccurate to connect him with the New Wave group.
Cage of Brass, first published in 1967 in Worlds of If, exemplifies Delany's dialogue with SF traditions and the new directions the genre was moving in the late 60s. If did a good job presenting the story, providing the usual sensationalistic blurb—"They were the rejects of the galaxy, condemned to living death until the end of time!"(If, June 1968, 71)—and some moody black and white illustrations by Gaughan in an complimentary gothic style.
Much of the story is a dramatic monologue—shades of Browning—by a prisoner from a future Venice incarcerated in Brass, an automated prison without guards which stores prisoners in coffins that feed them, wash them and satisfy their medical needs. They exercise once a day in a stone cubicle in the dark and never talk to anyone.
Three prisoners are housed in the bottom of the prison with their chambers wedged together around an old unused drainage pipe. Through a flaw in the prison's construction, they are able to talk through the pipe.
The protagonist—a brilliant architecture student—tells the other prisoners of his crime, a crime made possible because of his erudite knowledge of architecture, how in a jealous passion he murdered a woman and a friend, drowning them in the Doge's dungeon in Venice.
The crime is reminiscent of Poe in its motive (the passion), the performance (the melodramatic drowning), and the punishment (the final entombment similar to Poe's fear of being buried alive). Cage of Brass reiterates the themes of entrapment which runs through these tales, although this guilt-ridden character chooses to remain imprisoned rather than escape when he has a chance.
The story reaches forward and backwards in an intertextual dialogue with the reference to the genre's origins—some critics theorize that SF originates with gothic writers such as Mary Shelly and Poe—and the concern with inner space and literary elements of late 60s SF.
We, in Some Strange Power's Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line is a novella originally published in 1968 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The story focuses on attempts by employees of Global Power to connect power lines to a mountainside house where a group of biker-squatters live. Like most Delany stories, the characterization is intense enough to work as a mainstream story. Global Power has provided power and telecommunications throughout the world and maintains that access through Gila Monsters, enormous trucks that Delany describes as a cross between an armadillo and a football field. The Global Power Company is the force for modernization and progress in the world. Largely because of the Power Company there is no war, crime is rare, and there is living space and arable land. There is more prosperity and men, women, and different races work together freely.
The two leaders of the Gila Monster are a black man and a woman, which may not seem that striking today, but in 1968 SF it was rare that women and black men were depicted as leaders; the de facto leader was usually a white man.
The central conflict occurs between the workers on the Gila Monster and the bikers, who live on the margins of society without the benefits of world power. The lack of power in their mountaintop home allows them to define themselves freely and live outside the social order. Again we have a conflict because a group of people live on the margins and seek to define themselves in ways that the central power does not like.
Delany typically portrays criminals and social outcasts in a positive light; at times he's guilty of romanticizing them. In this story, Delany's sympathies are divided, as are the reader's. The bikers are violent and socially dysfunctional. Although they live on the margins, they resist a largely benevolent force. The story also contains an interesting reversal: the black protagonist is the representative of the establishment.
The protagonist is an Afro-American nicknamed Blacky. That nickname may bother some readers; certainly it does not fit into today's notions of political correctness, but Delany is portraying a society where race and gender are less divisive than they are now and does not mean the term to be offensive.
The angels—I've been describing them as bikers—live in an abandoned house on a mountain, High Haven, and fly Pteracycles: "two round cam-turbines on which you sit between the wings, then this six-foot metal shaft sprouting up between your legs that you steer with (hence the sobriquet "broomstick") and nothing else but goggles between you and the sky" (Delany Aye, and Gomorrah 137).
Large swaths of the story involve debates between different characters: Blacky and Roger (the archangel), Blacky and Fidessa (Roger's girlfriend and co-leader of the angels), Blacky and Mabel (co-leader of the Gila Monsters).
The Power Company, despite or even because of its benefits to society, is imperialistic. The law requires everyone to have access to power, so the Power Company has to run power cables and put outlets in the bikers' home even if they don't want them. The bikers feel that their existence is threatened by the Power Company, that if they run the cables to their home many members of their gang will start using power and fit into the Global Community, thus destroying their marginal subculture.
Mabel stands out as the representative of the Power Company viewpoint. She wants to destroy the angels because they are less progressive and modern, whereas the Global Power Company provides meaningful work, communications, and a better life than most humans have experienced throughout history.
Roger is Blacky's double, a fact which both of them notice. Like Blacky he has recently been appointed to a position of authority as leader of the angels, has a strong sense of responsibility, and often shows himself a good leader.
Blacky stands between Mabel and Roger, at one point wondering if he would be happier like Roger riding a broomstick. Blacky is an emotionally wounded man who saw his wife—another line devil—die on a power line. He tries to serve as a diplomat between the angels and the Power Company, pointing out to Mabel that more than one way of life is possible and questioning whether they should destroy a backward, freely chosen lifestyle. However, he ends up in a power struggle with Roger that results in the archangel getting electrocuted on a power line like Blacky's wife, which again brings up the patterns Delany uses in his writing: two deaths, two electrocutions that affect Blacky deeply. Roger's death, for which Blacky is partly responsible, haunts him like the death of his wife.
There are myriad literary references in the story. Fidessa is a name from the Faerie Queen, and Blacky is portrayed as a knight. The Milton references include the angels, the devils, and the fact that Blacky describes himself as justifying the ways of angels to Mabel. Like Eve, Fidessa offers Blacky an apple. When he flies his broomstick, Roger says that he is going to fly it at the gods, which is an example of hubris or pride, the sin of Milton's Satan. At the end Fidessa rides away on her broomstick and the description is reminiscent of the witches in Macbeth.
Who wins at the end? The answer is ambiguous. Roger is electrocuted while attacking the Gila Monster and trying to murder Blacky. After he dies, the angels flee High Haven. Since no one lives there now, the devils do not lay the power lines. As Mabel points out, Roger made everyone accept his values; however, he also lost his life and the angels were destroyed as a group.
Mabel destroys the angels but at the cost of having to recognize Roger's viewpoint. She does not succeed at bringing power and civilization to a new group of people; instead, she helps destroy a marginal group with little perceivable benefit to anyone.
Blacky takes Roger's ring off his hand after he dies. The ring symbolizes Roger's power as archangel; he ripped it off the hand of the previous gang leader after he defeated him. By taking it from Roger's dead body, Blacky—who initially had no intention of keeping it—is claiming a trophy from a defeated opponent. At the story's end, Blacky tells us he still wears the ring years later. Fidessa accuses him of being a ghoul for killing Roger and the angels. Blacky certainly wins his power struggle with Roger, but in doing so may have to recognize things about himself that he doesn't like.
If you give the story a Jungian reading, which makes sense if you consider the mythological elements, Blacky has killed his doppelganger and by claiming the ring has accepted his shadow, part of making himself a complete individual.
Delany's short fiction is a powerful example of the heights of emotion and drama that SF is capable of reaching, creating meaning by patterned repetition: images of driftglass including most poignantly the bodies of the amphimen, images of ecology and growth through the ecologarium, images of entombment and imprisonment in Cage of Brass, The Starpit and Driftglass. Language stands out as a predominant concern in his work both in the sense of the ambiguous meaning of signs and the writing style he carefully constructs. Delany's interest in intertextual dialogue within the massive text of SF also makes his stories valuable and explains why they have been influential despite being so few in number.